Your Space: Shaping Strong, Safe Places for Children to Learn

The best learning I did was a direct result of the space teachers created in which I was invited to learn new things, and learn to want to learn more.

This doesn't take anything away from all the hard working school teachers and higher education professors all over. There are many great teachers working hard in a job that seems to be valued less and less, with rising expectations, and lower incentives each year. And I learned valuable lessons from some great people in school. My life was made better because of how teachers taught me to learn.

I had teachers who showed they cared. Because my learning was important to them, it became important to me. Teachers like Mrs. Miller, who came to my house when I was in a body cast, brought me my homework, and helped me remember things like the Pledge of Allegiance. Teachers like Mrs. Dodds, who encouraged me to keep learning about animals, drawing, and writing stories. Teachers like Dr. Wiens, Dr. Sprunger, Dr. Krehbiel, and Dr. Lewis who taught me it was good to stay curious and explore my areas of interest. Teachers like Dr. Rathbun, Dr. Lord, and Dr. Robertson who taught me to look for the best in people and to courageously enter their worlds with heart, mind, and soul. These great teachers all made space, and I felt welcome to step in.

Change is hard and transitions, both good and bad, increase our stress. When an increase in stress is positive it is called eustress. Examples of eustress include celebrating holiday seasons, retiring, or having a child. An increase in distress can be harmful and overwhelming to the point it causes us to suffer. As we prepare for the start of another school year and recover from time away from school, I hope that we can keep a few key things in mind that will make all the difference as we navigate any resulting stress.

If you're like me, the last thing you need today is a list of things to do or remember. Instead of highlighting the 10, 5, "only 3", or "40 best" things to keep in mind, let's keep it to one thing: Remember Your Space.

When we face new things, it helps to have a guide and an anchor. You can be a child's guide and anchor. If it is true that all questions create anxiety, then having the answers to those questions can be calming. Being able to depend on someone who is not rattled can build our strength and resilience, which then enables us to encounter questions without known answers. In attachment theory, a relationship with someone who meets a person's needs and can be trusted when someone is upset, anxious, or afraid, is called a "secure base." This person who offers the "secure base" for another does not need to be physically present everywhere the other goes. A secure base helps the children (and anyone) feel safe to explore and enjoy their world, knowing that they can go back to base for help if needed. Without a secure base, we may learn we can't trust one another and take that to mean that we are not worth love. If people don't have other supports and chances to change for the positive, this development can lead to all kinds of painful experiences later in life.

Since we want to be a secure base for the kids in our lives, we need to take care of ourselves. Sometimes this means getting the help necessary to take care of ourselves. Even if it feels selfish to think of yourself, think about how making sure you are loved (by yourself or others) will impact how well you are able to take care of others. The kids in your life need you, and they will be even better off when they have the best you.

Kids will act out. Kids will have a hard time. Kids will throw fits, argue, get angry, be sad, and do what they do to try to get their way even if it hurts or backfires. This is something we can predict. We could explore any number of reasons why this happens, and many of them could lead to us blaming the child.

To be best prepared for this trouble that WILL HAPPEN, and take care of your space, I recommend taking a deep breath before responding and using a strategy that creates a healthy environment for children to explore their feelings and make good decisions. One such strategy is Dr. Garry Landreth's ACT model. This model helps parents avoid power struggles and set limits in a way that helps kids feel safe and learn how their choices make a difference. The ACT model steps are as follows:

  • ACKNOWLEDGE the children's feelings and wants so they feel understood
  • COMMUNICATE the limit to manage your space
  • TARGET alternative and acceptable choices

It takes time for this to become a natural response. Keep at it. Until this strategy gets more familiar, the first three steps might need to be repeated a few times. In rare cases, there is a fourth step that can be used: The ultimate choice. The following is an example of using the ACT model when a child or youth throws a phone against the wall:

  • A: "I can tell you're really upset."
  • C: "It is not okay to throw things like that."
  • T: "You can tell me more about what got you upset. You can take some deep breaths with me. You can color, draw, or write."
  • Then, if necessary: "If you choose to throw things again, you choose to lose your chance to use the phone." And, if the child or youth throws something again, "I can tell you're still upset, and that you've chosen to lose your chance to use the phone for now."

As with other discipline strategies, this model is not likely to work perfectly every time, every day, and it may not be the best fit for you. If it isn't the best fit, that's okay. There are a lot of positive and healthy discipline strategies that can help kids learn how to make choices that are caring and strong. Explore and ask for help as needed. You have a hard and thankless job, but it is worth it and becomes easier as we learn how to manage it well.

Your space: You can do this. You are strong enough. When you feel like you're not, remember that reaching out for help is still strength. Being a kid is hard, and helping kids succeed is sometimes even harder. It requires us to take care of ourselves and offer our best.

Just as my favorite teachers helped me want to learn and do my very best, adults have an incredible role of opportunity and responsibility. We get to help create spaces for children and youth to feel safe enough to go through transitions that are both scary and exciting. We get to show them that they will be okay and grow stronger by facing change. We get to help them weigh the risks of what decisions could gain or cost them and help them make changes to build a better life.

The last few weeks of summer break can be exhausting, and starting back in school can be terrifying. And yet, these can be the best and most memorable days of the year. Let's find space to take care of ourselves and the kids in our lives and build a great start to the new school year. Let's shape our space and make it the place where we can, and want to, learn, grow, love, and live to our fullest potential.

Thank you for welcoming me into your space as we learn together.

Chad Childs, MSFT, LCMFT